Defining the Goal

Allyson Wendt

Going green has gotten complicated. Competing rating systems and proliferating certifications have muddied the waters, making it a challenge to figure out what “green” means. Defining true sustainability is even harder, since it’s almost impossible to measure the real impacts of a building.

Some leaders of the green building industry have moved towards simple challenges, hoping to clarify the definition of “green” and push the industry toward better environmental performance. Ed Mazria, FAIA, for example, developed the 2030 Challenge, which set a goal of an immediate 50% reduction in fossil-fuel use in new buildings and net-zero fossil fuel use by 2030 (see

EBN Feb. 2006). Drawn by its moral imperative and responding to the simplicity of the challenge, architecture firms, organizations, and municipalities signed on in droves. But then they realized that they didn’t know how to measure that 50% reduction, or any of the other intermediate goals between current use and the net-zero goal. So they had to set a baseline—and until some large industry groups stepped in, there were many different baselines.

Similarly, Jason McLennan, AIA, developed the Living Building Challenge (LBC, see feature article) to present the industry with a simple, if nearly impossible, goal: meet the sixteen prerequisites the system sets out and be certified as a Living Building. These buildings are supposed to have net-zero impact on the environment, achieve net-zero energy and water use, be constructed with benign materials, and be pleasant and healthy for occupants. But interpreting those prerequisites isn’t straightforward, and there are a growing number of exceptions in order to make certification achievable given the current realities of the industry.

So are these energetic and charismatic leaders selling us something that is overly simplified? And if so, is that really going to lead the industry to change? Mazria and McLennan will both argue that, despite their difficulty, the point of those goals is to change the industry so that project teams can achieve them. But figuring out how to get from here to there is complicated. And perhaps that’s the point: that a simple goal will make designers, engineers, and manufacturers fill in the details. Instead of following a checklist, they come up with their own.

This kind of creativity is great, to a point. Both the 2030 Challenge and LBC are drawing innovative designers and engineers who share their passion along with their research. They’ve pushed architects to think not about doing less harm to the earth, but about doing no harm and even restoring the environment. The problem is that it’s still hard to know when we get there, especially when seemingly simple programs have multiple interpretations.

By all means, let’s push the industry towards greater performance. But remember what the Cheshire Cat told Alice: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Before we travel down any roads, let’s make sure we agree on where we’re going and how we’ll know when we get there. We need to standardize baselines and measuring techniques, agree on definitions, and clear those muddied waters.

Published May 29, 2009

Wendt, A. (2009, May 29). Defining the Goal. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/defining-goal

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.